Lobbying reform continues in British Columbia

Nov 20, 2018 | 41-3, Blog, Governance, Video | 0 comments

In the 2017 election, the BC Green Party campaigned on increasing accountability and transparency in our democracy.

Last fall we worked with the BC NDP government to take the initial steps to ban big money from provincial and municipal elections. We also played a key role in keeping electoral reform on the agenda with the referendum on proportional representation.

During the campaign the BC Greens were alone in our advocacy for reform to the lobbying industry in British Columbia. The Attorney General started that work last fall. But, it did not go far enough.
The AG’s work continues with Bill 54 this fall.

[Transcript]

I was kind of caught off guard. It was almost feeling like it was just getting warmed up. Then, it was just over, over there. So I’m kind of shell-shocked a little bit, as I’m trying to gather myself to make sure that I can say some coherent words on the Lobbyists Registration Amendment Act, Bill 54.

I think that it is important just to clarify that the Attorney General, if my memory serves me correctly, did, at least, I think, stand in this House and talk about how there were going to be further amendments coming forward to the Lobbyists Registration Act. The amendments that were made last fall — certainly, I remember speaking to those amendments and suggesting that they didn’t go far enough.

Continuing lobbying reform was the plan

One of the things that we talked about was actually further amending and asking the government to make further amendments. I don’t know that this is necessarily…. I think that there is something that needs to be fixed here, as was pointed out by the office. But nonetheless, I think that it’s not correct to suggest that the Attorney General is scrambling to make further amendments. That was certainly suggested, that it was going to happen.

The B.C. Green caucus does welcome this bill. It’s a part of a broader approach that we believe in improving trust in our government. This process in the Lobbyists Registration Act is something that we — the B.C. Green caucus, the B.C. Green Party candidates — talked about in the 2017 election as part of the reforms that we would like to see under a much broader democratic reform platform that we ran on.

This process to amend the Lobbyists Registration Act was a process that was part of the confidence and supply agreement that the member on the opposite side of the House talked about. This is part of the negotiation in the agreement that we have made with the government, that we take a look at this bill.

Improving transparency

We’re quite happy that we are having this discussion and this debate in the House about strengthening the lobbying regime in British Columbia. So I’m pleased to speak in support of Bill 54. I think that it does make significant strides to improve transparency of lobbying and to strengthen the lobbying regime in British Columbia.

Reforming our lobbying regime is a critical step. It’s a critical part of restoring people’s trust in government. It was certainly an issue that I heard on the doorstep over and over again, that people’s trust in our government had eroded substantially. This was an important part of re-establishing trust in government, making government more accountable in the decision-making process and strengthening the integrity of the decisions and the trust that people have in the decisions and how government decision-makers are advancing public policy, where that public policy’s genesis is. And it’s a part of a suite of measures that we have undertaken alongside the B.C. NDP government, which include banning corporate and union donations from elections and from recall campaigns.

I do want to talk a little bit about the process of how we got to where we are. Implementing lobbying reform was part of our platform, as I suggested, in 2017. We felt that it was a part of restoring people’s faith in government, and it undermined our democracy and people’s trust in their elected officials. So it was a critical part of the work that we did. We need greater transparency. We need greater accountability, and this is one part of that. So after the election, we negotiated lobbying reform into the confidence and supply agreement. It really was on the table of all the discussions that we were having after the 2017 election. It was an important part of our campaign, and it was an important part of the conversations with both the then B.C. Liberal government and the B.C. NDP. And as British Columbians can see quite clearly, it forms a part of our confidence and supply agreement.

Closing the “revolving door”

In the confidence and supply agreement, the government committed to do three things. They agreed to institute a multi-year prohibition on lobbying for former senior public office holders, increase penalties for violations of the Lobbyists Registration Act, and initiate a comprehensive review of the Lobbyists Registration Act, including the office of the registrar of lobbyists, the mandate of that office. The government acted on the first two commitments this time last year. The member opposite was talking about that. They implemented a two-year ban on senior public office holders from becoming lobbyists. This was an important step to close the revolving door, as has been said, between government and the lobbying industry and to protect against people being able to use their inside knowledge and relationships as lobbyists to have undue influence on government decision-making.

But this on its own isn’t enough. After these initial changes in line with our agreement, the government undertook a more comprehensive review of the act. That was certainly a part of the discussion that I was excited about, that the Attorney General was going to take a much deeper look at this act, and that was definitely in line with the confidence and supply agreement. We see the results of that in this bill that we have before us today.

B.C. has been laggards in lobbying reform

In this bill, in Bill 54, we’ll make meaningful and substantive changes on how lobbying is allowed to take place in British Columbia, and I’m glad to see that the registrar of lobbyists is supportive of these changes. The current registrar and registrars before him have made a number of suggestions on how to improve our lobbying regime to make it more transparent and ethical, but until now, their recommendations have largely been ignored, and our regime in British Columbia has lagged behind other jurisdictions in Canada.

Perhaps the most significant change made in this bill is the change to the reporting regime. A key shortcoming in the current regime is the fact that filers are not required to differentiate between intended lobbying and actual lobbying. When I talk to my constituents and when I talk to British Columbians about this, they really can’t believe that there isn’t that differentiation made and that former governments haven’t closed that gap, because it’s significantly hampered the transparency around what lobbying actually takes place. Many lobbyists currently put everyone they might possibly lobby, making it impossible to see what lobbying is actually happening in this House. We can’t tell who’s lobbied who or when, for how long, or what they’ve lobbied that person on. That is being fixed in this bill, and we’re very, very thankful for that. And I think British Columbians will be very thankful for it as well.

There’s no doubt that lobbying and lobbyists bring important information. The meetings that I’ve had with lobbyists, government relations people, bring us important information on a daily basis. The 87 members of this place can’t possibly know everything about every issue. So when government relations folks bring their clients in, they educate us.

Who, what, when and for how long?

But it’s important that British Columbians have access to the information that they need to know who those people are, when they were here and what impact they might have on public policy that’s being developed in this province. Now lobbyists will have to file an initial registration outlining who they expect to lobby and about what.

Significantly, they’ll also have to file returns each month describing the actual lobbying that took place over the past month. These monthly returns will include a lot of information, including the name and position; the title of the senior public office holder who was the object of the lobbying activity — this includes ministers, ministerial staff, MLAs, MLA staff and senior ministry staff — their prescribed position in the provincial entity; the date the lobbying took place; the names of the lobbyists who participated in the lobbying activity; particulars to identify the subject matter; and whether the lobbyist made a political contribution to the MLA or a political party.

All of this information is very, very important information in a transparent and accountable government. I am very, very happy, and my colleagues are very happy, that this government is taking the initiative to make sure that this change is coming forward. The change will greatly increase transparency, as I said, and it will make this registry actually useful. When we set up a registry, when we set up a bureaucracy like this, I think one of the things that we have to ask ourselves is: is this bureaucracy useful? And I think that in the past, it has been limited in its use.

The registrar has pointed out how it can be strengthened and how it can become more useful. That has fallen on deaf ears up until now. This change has been called for by the registrars. It’s been called for by past registrars before the current one. This legislative amendment change brings us in line with other jurisdictions like the federal government.

Relaxing the threshold

Now, this bill also makes some other significant changes. It removes the 100-hour threshold that now exists for in-house lobbyists. One of the things that I think I disagree with my colleague from the official opposition on is this doesn’t…. This 100-hour and 50-hour change…. There is currently a 100-hour threshold that allows a significant amount of lobbying to take place without being subject to reporting requirements or any of the other provisions of the act.

This change is in line with recommendations from B.C.’s registrar of lobbyists. We’re changing that threshold to 50 hours. Small businesses and small organizations, as was highlighted by the member of the official opposition who spoke to this, will still have a significant window to be able to undertake their lobbying activities under, but they won’t have the 100 hours. It will be cut to 50 hours, which should be more than enough. Certainly, B.C.’s registrar of lobbyists, the federal Commissioner of Lobbying and the Ontario registrar of lobbyists, among others, have supported this change.

There has been some criticism of this decision to provide this lower threshold for some organizations. But in all, I and my colleagues believe that it’s sensible to make sure that we aren’t being too burdensome on very small organizations that don’t exist for the sole purpose of lobbying. Again, this is not these businesses’ sole purpose. They do other work, other great work, and it’s important for them to be able to have access to the government decision-makers, to provide their information, but it’s not the primary reason for their existence. But we will be having a further discussion and asking further questions about this with the Attorney General in the committee stage.

This bill also clarifies the definition of lobbying for consultant lobbyists to reduce compliance anxiety. It also closes a loophole that became evident over the summer, as was aptly pointed out by my colleague across the way.

Who is a “public office holder”?

Before, the definition of “public office holder” technically only covered former employees of former ministers, meaning only former employees of former ministers were covered by the act, including the two-year ban on lobbying.

But if you used to work for a minister who is still in office, you weren’t subject to the ban. Clearly, this was a mistake, and it wasn’t in line with the policy direction that we or the government wanted to go. So the registrar pointed this out this summer and asked the government to fix this loophole, which they’re doing with this legislation. We’re thankful for that.

This bill also requires the disclosure of a number of things that were previously hidden from the public. Lobbyists will now be required to report, if you’re lobbying on a contingency basis, who the ultimate client is and any third parties with a direct interest in the outcome of lobbying, and anyone who donates a certain amount of money to the lobbying effort. This will also be clarified in the regulations. That’s my understanding.

Addressing contingency fees

Contingency fees. This is an important one which I don’t know that British Columbians know much about. But this is a payment that is made dependent on whether that lobbyist is able to secure a certain result for their client, and the government has chosen to take a middle road. Instead of outright banning the contingency fee contracts like some other jurisdictions have done, the B.C. NDP government opted for requiring disclosure of contingency fee contracts, which is a middle-road approach, as I said.

There has been some criticism. We acknowledge the criticism that’s been made, and we’ll be asking more in committee stage about why the government chose to take this path instead of an outright ban.

Under this new act, you also have to declare if you adhere to a code of conduct, like the federal Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct, the Law Society code of conduct or other professional standards that exist out there. If you’re a lobbyist, you’ll have to let the government know if you already have a code of conduct that you have sworn to uphold.

A code of conduct

We, the B.C. Green caucus, wanted this legislation to direct the registrar to create a code of conduct themselves for lobbyists. So this is not quite the approach that we would have taken. However, I think the government is acting on many of the elements that would be in a code of conduct in this bill, such as requiring the disclosure of contingency fee contracts, requiring identification of third-party interests and regulating gift giving. The government has chosen to prohibit gift giving except in certain situations where it’s incidental to protocol. An example of where gifts might be allowed is as part of a customary ceremony or an event. I can think of First Nations ceremonies as an example, in which you would be given a gift, and it would be problematic for you not be able to receive that gift.

A final substantive change that the government is making with this bill is increasing the power of the registrar against people who break the rules in the act. Of course, as we know, if you don’t have a strong ability to enforce and to enforce the rules, then what do you have? So this change is in line with our agreement to increase the penalties for violations in the act, and we’re quite happy with that aspect of it. Under this change, the registrar will be able to impose a ban on lobbying for up to two years if they determine a grave and repeated failure to comply with elements of the act. This change actually adds a significant tool for the registrar to enforce compliance, and we’ll be asking more about that in the committee stage as well.

In conclusion, we’re happy that the second phase of amendments to this very important piece of legislation is coming forward in this fall session. And, to point out, this was a piece of work that we had talked about last fall. We started last fall, and we talked about continuing. So we’re very happy that it indeed has continued. And we’re quite happy — the B.C. Green caucus — with the direction that government is taking. Although not entirely the things that we would have done, we’re certainly happy with the direction.

Time to clean up lobbying in B.C.

As was pointed out, lobbying reform was an important element of our platform in 2017. We believed that we needed to clean up the lobbying that happens in this place, that British Columbians have a level of confidence that the kinds of decisions that are coming forward from public policy are influenced by stakeholders and by people, by British Columbians, but that they understand what events took place in order for public office holders and decision-makers to get to that decision. So these changes that have been outlined, I think, are very, very important.

We’ve been criticized, I think, for having some of the laxest rules, and now I think we’re modernizing our lobbying act, and we’re getting ourselves into a position now where we are comparable, if not leading the country, in our legislation.

Again, we want to be able to be transparent, to be accountable and that the people of British Columbia are confident in the work that we’re doing in here and how we arrive at the policy decisions that we get to.

With that, I’ll take my seat. I’d like to thank you the Attorney General for bringing this legislation forward. We’re quite happy to support this bill, and we have some questions in committee stage.

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